Bay leaf refers to the aromatic leaf of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae). Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in cooking for their distinctive flavor and fragrance. The leaves are often used to flavor soups, stews, braises and pâtés in Mediterranean cuisine. The fresh leaves are very mild and do not develop their full flavor until several weeks after picking and drying.
Bay leaves are a fixture in the cooking of many European cuisines (particularly those of the Mediterranean), as well as in North America. They are used in soups, stews, meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. The leaves also flavor many classic French dishes. The leaves are most often used whole (sometimes in a bouquet garni) and removed before serving (they can be abrasive in the digestive tract). In Indian (Sanskrit name tamaalpatra, Hindi tejpatta) and Pakistani cuisine, bay leaves are often used in biryani and other rich, spicy dishes – although not as an everyday ingredient in home cuisine – and as an ingredient in garam masala.
Bay leaves can also be crushed or ground before cooking. Crushed bay leaves impart more of their desired fragrance than whole leaves, but are more difficult to remove, and thus they are often used in a muslin bag or tea infuser. Ground bay laurel may be substituted for whole leaves, and does not need to be removed, but it is much stronger due to the increased surface area and in some dishes the texture may not be desirable.
The classic Turkish bay (laurus nobilis) has oval leaves 1-4 inches long and the California bay laurel, has long slender leaves 2-5 inches long.
The flavors are fairly similar, but the Turkish leaves are preferable for their subtler, less mentholated taste; they are also healthier to consume.